Preaching Tikkun

Pub date March 24, 2011
WriterAsaf Shalev

Michael Lerner recently endured death threats, attacks on his house, and a cyber attack that shut down the website of his beloved magazine Tikkun. But it’s nothing new for an outspoken outsider whom infamous former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once dubbed “one of the most dangerous criminals in America.”

The 68-year-old rabbi jokes that his middle name is chutzpah (Yiddish for audacity, good or bad) and says he has been a magnet for controversy his entire life. But that doesn’t make the recent threats from Zionists and other strong advocates for Israel any less scary.

The latest controversy comes on the heels of Tikkun’s silver anniversary celebration, held March 14, when the progressive Jewish publication honored human rights advocate Judge Richard Goldstone, whose report condemning Israeli war crimes in Gaza was strongly criticized by Jewish leaders. The day after the Tikkun event, vandals plastered posters outside Lerner’s Berkeley home depicting him as a Nazi cooperating with an Islamic extremist to destroy Israel. Previously vandals broke into his home, wreaking havoc inside and leaving graffiti to communicate their message.

After all these years, Lerner bears the threats and accusations with eternal optimism and resilience, preaching the still-radical message of “peace, justice, nonviolence, generosity, caring, love, and compassion.” The message has been at center of the Berkeley-based magazine’s mission for 25 years.

Aside from being a vibrant spiritual community based on traditional Jewish and other humanistic values, Tikkun has deeply influenced the discourse in the wider Jewish community. It has challenged the Jewish community’s automatic support for Israel and Zionism and started a spirited debate, triggering an angry backlash in the process.

As its readership has diversified across religions, so has its mission, leading Lerner to found the Network of Spiritual Progressives in 2005. Dismayed by how conservatives use the notion of family values, Lerner has sought to create a progressive framework to address the human need for spiritual meaning.

“Tikkun is the major thing I did with my life,” Lerner tells us.

The recent celebration included an award ceremony for those Lerner’s team deems most “Tikkunish.” The title of the magazine comes from the old Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, a principle of shared responsibility to “heal, repair, and transform the world.” Previous winners include poet Allen Ginsberg and historian Howard Zinn.

Goldstone is known for helping to dismantle apartheid in South Africa and prosecuting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Most recently, Goldstone headed a U.N.-sponsored investigation into Israel’s attack on Gaza two years ago. The investigation concluded that indiscriminate bombing in densely populated areas by Israeli forces amounts to war crimes.

Israel and many Jewish leaders have harshly criticized Goldstone’s report on the Gaza attack for its purported biases, saying it unjustly jeopardizes Israel’s international standing and reputation. But at Tikkun’s award ceremony, Goldstone reaffirmed the findings of his investigation and said that he was compelled to act because he believes in the “right of civilians to be protected even in war.”

Lerner sees Goldstone’s actions as important and deeply Jewish, calling him “a person who takes seriously a central command of Torah: ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.'” The two men have had a relationship since Lerner reached out to Goldstone a year ago. At the time, Goldstone was facing so much backlash that some members of South Africa’s Jewish community sought to bar him from attending his son’s bar mitzvah. That was when the first attack to Lerner’s home occurred.

Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said the police have “no leads or identified suspects.” She went on to say that the latest incident may be classified as a hate crime.

“When people start coming to attack your house, you don’t feel safe,” Lerner said. “You don’t know what these crazy people will do next.” But he insists he does not want to make a big deal out of the threats, saying extremists have never altered his actions or politics.

Lerner has always tried to challenge the American Jewish establishment, a term for organizations with an array of religious, cultural, and political concerns but a common hawkish stance on Israel and American foreign policy.

“Israel has been turned into God,” he explains. “You can walk into any synagogue in America and you can tell them ‘I don’t believe in God, I don’t like the Torah, and I’m not following the Ten Commandments’ and be welcomed. But if you go into that same synagogue and say, ‘I don’t support Israel,’ you are kicked out. People are worshiping Israel and God has been abandoned.”

But Lerner notes shifting public opinion, especially among younger Jews. Many are experiencing ethical dissonance between the righteous and heroic Israel commonly portrayed in the Jewish community and the increasingly visible reality of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian lands, human rights abuses, and violations of international law.

While criticism of Israel coming from non-Jews is often dismissed as anti-Semitism, Jews who express dissent often get called “self-hating.” But Lerner said the illogical conclusion that Israel is the same thing as the Jewish people, and that if you criticize Israel you hate yourself has become less effective in silencing dissent. “It simply isn’t true that people are angry at Israel because of some internal psychological deformation,” Lerner said. “[Increasingly] people are saying ‘If being ethical is the same as being a self-hating Jew, then I choose to be ethical.’ “

But Lerner comes under fierce criticism from Jewish hardliners for his views. Attorney Alan Dershowitz, an outspoken supporter of Israel’s government, famously wrote a 2006 commentary in j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California detailing Lerner’s “offense against decency and the Jewish people,” concluding that Lerner is a “rabbi for Hamas.” According to Dershowitz, “Tikkun is quickly becoming the most virulently anti-Israel screed ever published under Jewish auspices.”

But Lerner isn’t really on the radical edge in criticizing Israel. Although Tikkun courted controversy in 1988 by denouncing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, the magazine today doesn’t support the movement that is pushing a policy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel initiated by Palestinian activists in 2005 as a nonviolent tactic to pressure Israel to change its policies. But Lerner still seeks to foster debate on the topic, as he did in the July/August 2010 issue, which featured Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace arguing for at least a partial support of the tactic.

Lerner’s ire has always been directed at powerful institutions, from the military to the white Southern power structure. As a college student, Lerner directly engaged in the nonviolent protests of the 1960s. While working toward his first PhD (philosophy) at UC Berkeley, Lerner was president of Students for a Democratic Society. Later, while working on his second PhD (psychology) in Seattle, Lerner was arrested and found guilty of instigating a riot during a protest against the Vietnam War. The conviction was later overturned, but his reputation as a dangerous radical was solidified in the minds of Hoover and other establishment figures.

Lerner never abandoned his belief in the validity and power of protest. “I would like to see young Jews confront the Jewish institutions,” he said. “I want to see sit-ins and demonstrations to challenge those who are willing to give support to the right-wing governments of Israel.”

Yet he has also grown skeptical of many leftist groups. “As spiritual progressives, we are critical of progressives,” Lerner explains. Although he agrees that a major redistribution of political and economic power is necessary, he argues that something is missing on the left, with its focus on secular ideas and neglect of real spiritual needs.

Lerner says the left’s shortcoming has allowed the right to tap into popular discontent and win support by championing church and family.

While working toward his PhD in psychology, Lerner was part of a team that interviewed thousands of working Americans. “What we discovered was there was a spiritual crisis in peoples lives. There was a deep hunger for a framework of meaning and purpose to life that would transcend the individualism, selfishness, and materialism that people are working all day long in the workplaces,” he said. “People don’t like the message of the work world that the bottom line is to maximize money and power, and to do that you must look out for No. 1 and not care about others.”

His response was to found Tikkun, whose message can attract even agnostics. Alana Price does not describe herself as religious, but she has recently been promoted to be the co-managing editor of the magazine. “I knew Tikkun built a bridge between the religious left and the secular left, so I was excited about that,” Price said. “What drew me was the deeply humane quality of Tikkun.”